She was simply driving a car. That was her crime: driving a car.
Well, more than that. She was a white woman driving a car with a black man in it.
Compounding that crime, the car had out-of-state plates. She was an agitator.
And she would die for these crimes.
She was spotted at a traffic light near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. Four Klansmen saw her, and they quickly acted as jury and judge. She was guilty as charged, and the sentence was death. And they knew just who would be her executioners.
When the light changed, the woman started driving east toward Montgomery. The car with the Klansmen went after her. They accelerated, trying to catch up. At some point, she must have understood what was happening and must have accelerated too. It took the Klan car more than 20 miles to catch up to her.
When they did, someone shot twice, but it only took one bullet in the back of the head, severing her spinal cord, to put her away. Surprisingly, no shots hit her passenger.
Her car ran into a ditch. The Klansmen stopped and came back to inspect their handiwork. The passenger knew enough to pretend that he was dead, his only hope for escaping that fate. Covered as he was with the woman’s blood, he might have looked it. Satisfied, the Klansmen returned to their car and drove off.
The passenger, Leroy Molton, 19, eventually got out of the car and began running. Some time later, a truck carrying marchers back to Selma picked Molton up, and he was safe.
The martyr was Viola Liuzzo. Her story, which ended so horribly on the evening of March 25, had begun weeks before.
In January 1965, a Selma civil rights group and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. Martin Luther King’s organization, began weeks of protests over the lack of voting rights for blacks. In one demonstration, an Alabama state trooper shot protestor Jimmy Lee Jackson, who died soon after. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), called for a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, to protest the shooting. SNCC’s John Lewis and SCLC’s Hosea Williams planned the march.
The marchers set out on Sunday, March 7, defying a ban on their protest from Alabama Governor George Wallace. At the southern end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by an array of Alabama state troopers and deputies, who attacked with tear gas, dogs, and nightsticks. Dozens of marchers sustained injuries, some as serious as Lewis’s fractured skull. They call it “Bloody Sunday.”
Liuzzo, who saw television news coverage of the beatings, was outraged.
King came to Selma to complete the march. He asked a federal judge for a restraining order to prevent Wallace from stopping the marchers, but did not receive one quickly. On March 9, then, King led 2,500 others to the point of the attack, knelt in a moment of silence, and then turned around and went back into Selma. (That decision subjected King to intense criticism from some in the movement.)
The restraining order finally came on March 17, and four days later the march began. From the 21st to the 25th, the protestors marched along U.S. 80. On the final day, some 25,000 or so gathered at the Montgomery capitol building to hear King speak.
By then, Viola Liuzzo was in Alabama—in fact, she had been for several days. A part-time university student in Detroit, she had joined a rally held in sympathy for the Selma marchers back on the March 16. There, she decided that the cause was her cause and, after saying goodbye to her husband by phone, drove off to Alabama.
When she arrived, Liuzzo was assigned to the transportation team, driving marchers back to Selma at the end of each day’s march. On the evening of the 25th, she and Molton—a local activist—were making just another one of several trips when by ill chance she found herself in the wrong red light at the wrong time.
There are many fascinating and appalling things about Liuzzo’s death and important things about the Selma march, which spurred the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. But I’m not going to tell those stories.
Instead, I’d like you to envision a kid not yet eleven and a half watching the Today show before school the morning after Liuzzo’s death, hearing the news that a 39-year-old mother of five from Detroit had been shot and killed down in Alabama because she was trying to do the right thing.
The news smacked him.
He thought about those semi-orphaned children, living in his own city. Hearing her getting ready for work, he thought about his own mother and what he would do had it been her. And he wondered how somebody could kill a person like that.
That’s the day that the civil rights movement hit home. That’s the day that he absorbed the idea that violent opposition—any opposition—to the simple call for fairness was just wrong.
Now, you can say that this is a fairly shallow and perhaps even racist attitude. (You only cared when a white woman was killed?) There were, after all, plenty—far too many—blacks who were martyred in the struggle for civil rights. Where was that kid’s outrage then? Why didn’t he care about them? Viola Liuzzo was hardly the most significant or the most innocent victim of the segregationists’ attacks.
Perhaps you’d be right. I’d like to think it’s more shallowness than racism. In 1965, he was just a naif, a snotty-nosed kid more concerned with being teased, being pimpled, and being on Jeopardy. Those other deaths had not seeped into his unconsciousness. They hadn’t crossed the great divide into his thick skull.
Later, the kid learned those other stories and was moved to mourning and to profound respect for the victims and their families. Later, in his work, he tried as often as possible to relate clearly and with conviction the story of the movement and the heroism of the people in it. Later, in his life, he tried to demonstrate the principles of acceptance and equality.
That morning, though, the nearness of this awful, unnecessary death clicked something inside him.
That morning, he grasped the simple truth that segregation and racism were just wrong and dimly realized what he could better articulate later, that the civil rights movement was the nation’s chance to redeem itself.
Copyright © 2010 AtHome Pilgrim.
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